The immense value of an English Language and Literature degree, according to an entrepreneur

english language and literature, master's in journalism
Aisha Hassan, who studied at the University of Oxford and Columbia University, co-founded Dia Guild, an e-commerce & content platform connecting artisanal Southeast Asian brands with a discerning global audience. Source: Aisha Hassan

Aisha Hassan isn’t your typical entrepreneur. While others chased trendy degrees, the enthralled bookworm chose to pursue an English Language and Literature degree at the University of Oxford.

“I first contemplated branching out to Law or Philosophy, Politics & Economics, mainly because I initially thought these degrees would be more employer-friendly, and the Higher Subjects I was studying for the International Baccalaureate at that time (English, History, and Economics) were ideal for applying to those degrees too,” says Hassan. 

However, after talking to working professionals, she discovered employers valued strong “soft skills” just as much if not more than, hard skills learned on the job.

Various studies have emphasised the demand for soft skills in the workplace. LinkedIn’s annual Global Talent Trends 2019 report found that 92% of talent professionals say soft skills a key aspect they look for when they hire, and 80% say that having those skills is increasingly important to company success.

For all the flak a degree in English gets in the media (including being described as “low value” by the UK government), the subject has been lauded for its focus on honing critical thinking, communication, and analysis.

“Thus, I was encouraged to pursue what I was most passionate about, and that was, without a doubt, English,” she says. 

Hassan was one of 50 Malaysian undergraduates enrolled at the University of Oxford in 2015 — that number is undoubtedly lower when you take into account her chosen programme.

After completing her Bachelor’s in English Language and Literature, she headed for Columbia University’s Master of Science in Journalism, where she found herself graduating with honours in the top 10% among the 203 students enrolled in the programme and receiving the Henry N. Taylor Award & Grant.

Combined, these  experiences equipped her with storytelling prowess and industry knowledge.

For example, on her first day of class at Columbia University, the students, including Hassan, were tasked to go to the subways and interview five strangers about their lives, getting their contact details in the process.

This, along with her internship at Quartz after her master’s programme, gave her the confidence and foundation she needed to take the plunge into the world of entrepreneurship.

Dia Guild, the e-commerce platform Hassan co-founded, wasn’t just a business; it was a bridge.

The name itself embodies this. “Dia,” a Malay pronoun for “she/he/them,” reflects the Malaysian roots of the founders, while its connection to words like “dialogue” highlights their mission: connecting Southeast Asian artisans with a global audience.

We caught up with Hassan to learn more about her experience of studying at the University of Oxford and Columbia University and how both led her to co-found Dia Guild.

 english language and literature, master's in journalism

Hassan (left) pursued a Bachelor’s in English Language and Literature at the University of Oxford. Source: Aisha Hassan

What motivated you to pursue a Bachelor’s in English Language and Literature at the University of Oxford?

English has always been my favourite subject and the one I excelled at the most too. 

I chose to apply to Oxford because it was the top university in the world for English Language and Literature. Compared to Cambridge’s curriculum, Oxford’s English degree spanned a much wider breadth of literature, tracing back to Old English and stretching out into present and contemporary literature. 

So many of the world’s most prominent literary figures — from John Ronald Reuel Tolkien to Lewis Carroll and countless more — had also walked through Oxford’s hallowed halls. It was my dream university to study English and I’m so happy I got in.

What was your application process like?

I applied to Oxford using UCAS, the UK university application portal. 

Nailing the personal statement came first. I read extensively across various genres, forms, and historical periods and incorporated this into my personal statement. I also sought out extracurricular activities specifically linked to my degree. 

I joined poetry societies, went on English Literature school trips to the Brontë Parsonage Museum and The Globe, and condensed what I learned into what I hoped would be a distinctive personal statement.

Next, Oxford requires you to sit entrance exams for a wide variety of its subjects. For English, I had to sit in the English Literature Admissions Test (ELAT), a subject-specific admissions test, where you are essentially given an unseen piece of literary text and then have to analyse it and write a sophisticated essay about the material. 

It was very difficult, but luckily, I was called for an interview.

I applied for a specific college — Lady Margaret Hall — and I had two English interviews scheduled there. The first interview was with two college English professors, world experts in their field, and they asked me about my reading, personal statement, and areas of literary interest. We would delve quite deep into each topic, with the professors challenging my views or asking me to justify them. 

The second interview — also with two people — was much more difficult. You are given a piece of text about 10 minutes before your interview, with the provenance taken away. You are expected to analyse it within that time and not only be able to contextualise its literary place but also discuss it deeply. 

Thankfully, I passed both interviews and got my offer letter later that December. 

english language and literature, master's in journalism

After graduating with an English Language and Literature degree from Oxford, Hassan returned to Malaysia and secured an internship at Khazanah, a sovereign wealth fund in Malaysia, before joining Harper’s BAZAAR Malaysia. Source: Aisha Hassan

What was it like studying there?

I had an incredible time studying at Oxford. I was surrounded by some of the most intelligent people I’d ever met in a stunning, ancient city while immersing myself in a subject I adored.

The learning environment was unique and challenging. There were department-wide lectures or seminar classes to attend, where incisive conversations would always take place, but the bulk of teaching was really done via tutorials. 

These consisted of one-on-one or two-on-one conversations with world-renowned professors. These intellectually driven discussions were challenging and invigorating. I had brilliant professors, found all my teachers inspiring, and my tutors were always sources of academic and personal support.

There was also so much to do beyond class. Much of my time was spent walking or cycling in the parks, strolling along the river, visiting pubs and restaurants, and admiring the beautiful libraries. I made the best friends, some of whom are still among my closest friends today. 

What inspired you to pursue a Master of Science in Journalism at Columbia University? 

After my degree, I worked as a Beauty Writer at Harper’s BAZAAR Malaysia, which I deeply enjoyed. I wanted to push myself further by exploring different subject areas or editorial styles, so I knew a master’s would be an ideal way for me to learn, find a new footing, and launch into new heights. 

A postgraduate degree in journalism makes sense. I only applied to Columbia University because it was the best journalism school in the world. It was also in New York, and as a hungry and adventurous 20-something, it was a dream city.

How was the application process different from your first degree?

I submitted my CV and two essays — one about my personal life, which was experimental, intimate, and emotionally raw, reflecting my true self. The other essay focused on my professional journey. I was fortunate to have a wealth of experiences to draw from, ranging from Harper’s BAZAAR Malaysia to Khazanah and beyond, as well as numerous aspirations for the future. I condensed all of these into the specified word count and submitted them.

Next, Columbia requires you to sit an entrance exam, which includes a general news test (i.e., assessing your knowledge of current affairs and the type of news you typically consume) and a series of writing tests. If I recall correctly, these included writing an article and presenting different story ideas for a specific topic. 

I remember receiving the offer letter via email while at Harper’s BAZAAR’s anniversary party. I opened it excitedly and shared the news with my boss and editors right then and there, and we all erupted into cheers and celebrations. 

english language and literature, master's in journalism

At Columbia University, the English Language and Literature graduate edited videos, learned intimate stories, reported from courts, explored the Bronx with camera gear, jotted notes in Staten Island, witnessed the Women’s March, and much more. Source: Aisha Hassan

What was your experience at Columbia University like?

Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism pushed me in the best of ways. On our first day of class, they spoke to us for about 15 minutes before telling us that our first assignment was to go to the subways and try to interview five strangers about their lives, getting their contact details in the process. 

As you can imagine, most of New York’s subway-goers were not too keen on slowing down their day to talk to some random, bright-eyed student. This first assignment was a lesson in rejection and stepping out of one’s comfort zone.

And that’s the best way I can describe my entire learning experience there — constantly stepping out of my comfort zone. From using new technologies to travelling to different boroughs to try and find a good story or photographing protests, it was all new and exhilarating.

I was also studying during Trump’s administration, so it was a particularly heated and exciting time to study journalism in New York City. Our professors were also practising journalists from some of the most renowned publications in the world, including The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, and so much more, so it was remarkable to be learning reporting skills from them.

It was incredible to be in New York, and this degree, as well as the city it was in, was really a masterclass in learning to be brave. 

english language and literature, master's in journalism

Hassan, who pursued a Master of Science in Journalism at Columbia University, graduated in the top 10% with Honors in 2018. Source: Aisha Hassan

What did you do after completing your Master’s programme?  

After my master’s, I worked in the US (through a visa programme for international students called the Optional Practical Training), and this began with an internship at Quartz.

After my internship, I landed a short-term contract as a general reporter. After that, I extended my stay to assist with beta-testing and prototyping a personalised news service. Following that, I pursued a freelance contract focusing on a series called How We’ll Win, addressing gender inequality in the workplace.

Upon returning to Malaysia, I began working in part of my family’s business at Peremba (Malaysia), a property development and hospitality company. My main responsibility was building the company’s philanthropic arm and corporate foundation.

During the pandemic, we shifted to food aid, personally packing and delivering food to nearby communities. Meanwhile, I wrote a series of short stories and poems that would later go on to be published, initiated a theatre project that later received a national government grant, and engaged in freelance assignments for Harper’s BAZAAR Malaysia.

More importantly, it was during this time that Alia, Kylie, and I began ideating around Dia Guild.

english language and literature, master's in journalism

It was during the pandemic that English Language and Literature graduate Hassan (centre), alongside her friends Kylie Francis (left) and Alia Farouk (right), began ideating around Dia Guild. Source: Aisha Hassan

In what ways do you believe your education at both universities has prepared you to navigate the challenges as a co-founder of Dia Guild? 

Both educational experiences were rigorous, placing me among some of the brightest minds globally and consistently pushing me out of my comfort zone. This mentality has been invaluable in my work with Dia Guild because entrepreneurship is almost like one huge leap of faith, sustained only by the relentless, adaptable work you put in and the willingness to push yourself and your company toward greater heights. 

The skills I acquired, from refining my writing abilities to understanding the luxury and lifestyle sector, alongside working with a diverse range of people, are abilities that I use every single day with Dia Guild.

More significantly, both of my degrees instilled in me the importance of storytelling, a power I leverage to spotlight Southeast Asia’s artisans and creators through Dia Guild.